Feds Face Foreign Language Crisis

In a Senate panel entitled “A National Security Crisis: Foreign Language Capabilities in the Federal Government,” senators listened as experts described the dearth of federal employees with foreign language skills that is leaving the U.S. vulnerable in the area of national security. The hearing was convened by the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, under the auspices of the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the subcommittee, said national security agencies “continue to experience shortages of people skilled in hard-to-learn languages due to a limited pool of Americans to recruit from.”

Currently, only 74 percent of the State Department’s “language-designated” positions are filled with adequately qualified personnel while only 28% of language jobs at the Defense Department are “filled with personnel at the required foreign-language proficiency level,” remarked Laura Junor, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, in her statement. “Although we may be filling the positions, we are not filling those positions with individuals with the requisite proficiency skill level.” In addition to foreign language proficiency, successful candidates must be U.S. citizens and be able to pass the rigorous background check. Only one in ten applicants are offered positions as contract linguists.

Without a fully capable team working on the nation’s most pressing international conflicts and diplomacy issues, national security is compromised. The prospects of the next generation filling the gaps are dire. As Eduardo Ochoa, the Education Department’s assistant secretary of post-secondary education reported, only 30 percent of high school students and eight percent of post-secondary students are enrolled in a foreign language course. As for less-commonly taught critical languages, less than one percent of post-secondary students are enrolled in courses.

Addressing the committee, president of the Institute of International Education, Allan Goodman, called for a greater commitment to foreign language instruction at U.S. colleges and universities, stating that a knowledge of foreign languages and cultures is essential to our national security and to preparing Americans to meet the demands of the global workforce. Dr. Goodman was invited to testify based on IIE’s role in assisting the federal government in administering key academic exchange and public diplomacy initiatives as well as his participation on a Council on Foreign Relations Task Force, chaired by Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State, which recently published a report entitled “US Education Reform and National Security” (see Language Magazine April 2012, page 9).

“Learning and using another’s language teaches that we cannot solve world problems on our own no matter how many Chinese and Indians speak English,” Dr. Goodman concluded in his written testimony. “Languages convey more than facts; they enable people to reach conclusions in different ways and are the standard bearers of cultures from which we can also learn. It has never been more important for more Americans to know that, especially as they prepare for and enter careers of service to the nation and in departments and agencies that all aim at making the world we share a less dangerous place.”

Part of the crisis can be attributed to a cultural attitude that belittles the importance of learning foreign languages.

“The biggest difficulty we face … is that our leadership is as unaware of the needs for languages within their organizations as the general populace is failing to be aware of the needs for languages in their community,” explained Glen Nordin, principal foreign language advisor at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. “It is a national disgrace in that respect, and it’s that lack of knowledge that we need to correct. We need to find a way to communicate to our people just how important that interpreter/translator at the social services office is to a community’s well-being.”